Remembering Karen

(NC Arts Newsletter, Spring 1993)

Karen Calhoun, 42, director of the Union County Community Arts Council, died on February 15th after an automobile accident. She was en route to promote an arts program to the Rotary Club after meeting with Union County School officials about arts in the schools.

Karen embodied the spirit of community arts. She transformed the Union County Arts Council from a small grant-making organization into one that made the arts a part of the community, not apart from the community. Her vision was to provide arts experiences for everyone—especially children, people with disabilities, older adults, and folks in small towns. She pursued it with a keen commitment to excellence.

In Union County, the arts council budget grew from $50,000 to $300,000 under Karen’s leadership. Her success at fundraising was simple. She believed in what she did with all her heart. And she knew how to create partnerships where everybody wins. She was adept at convincing local government officials of the value and benefit of the arts to the lives of their citizens. Under her direction, UCCAC began the Arts Alive series, programs tailor-made for small towns funded through each town council in the county. She started a special populations series that offered arts programs to nursing homes, hospitals, and people with disabilities. She launched a summer day care arts program.

According to Barbara Faulk, an assistant at the council and Karen’s close friend, “Karen believed that reaching children was the most important thing we did. To Karen, arts education was as important as any education a child received.” The county’s in-school programs reached all 16,000 public school students in two school systems, two or three times every year.

For her work in the community—on the Monroe Downtown Revitalization Committee, Chamber of Commerce committees, and the Union County Sesquicentennial Committee—Karen became the first woman to receive the Monroe Jaycees’ distinguished service award in 1991. Her service exceeded the boundaries of her home community. She was on the board of the North Carolina Association of Arts Council from 1986-1988. Since 1991 she had been an advisor for the North Carolina Peer Advisory Network. She was the primary force in organizing the Carolinas Cultural Council, a fourteen-county regional consortium of North and South Carolina local arts councils surrounding Charlotte.

Prior to taking the Union County position, Karen directed the Anson County Arts Council and the Rockingham County Arts Council. She had a nap for taking small fledgling councils and helping them make quantum leaps. She understood how to motivate people from all walks of life and helped them look at the arts as an integral part of the community.

Karen studied painting and arts management at East Carolina University, the Tate Museum in London, the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, and the University of Québec. She earned her bachelor’s degree in arts from Wingate College in 1986 and had recently enrolled in Queens College’s master of business administration program.

Karen’s former husband, North Carolina sculptor Dempsy Calhoun, recounts the years when he was part of the state arts council’s Visiting Artist Program and the family moved frequently: “during those years, Karen did all kinds of things to help support the family and keep food on the table, including working at fast food places. Moving became a secondary art form. When the kids were little, she had to put her own art on the back burner.” A painter and printmaker, Karen was gratified years later to be able to exhibit her work alongside Dempsey’s at the Green Hill Center for North Carolina Art in a show entitled “Artists Choose Artists.”

Karen’s time on earth seems far too short to those of us left behind. Many people will miss her deeply. Dempsy left me with a thought though; a bit of comfort. “Karen’s goals and desires were being addressed,” he said. “There was no unfinished business. She loved her job. She savored every minute.” Energy like Karen’s doesn’t pass away. It is up to all of us to carry it on.

~by Amy Brannock in the North Carolina Arts Council’s “NC Arts” Spring 1993 newsletter